THE FIRST TIME Fran Dunphy set foot in the Palestra, it was for an NCAA Tournament tripleheader, the longest and greatest of days on the hardest of benches. Perhaps it was a portent.
"I think I'd been to Convention Hall before that with my father to see the Warriors - you know, George 'The Bird' Yardley and guys like that," Dunphy said. "And in those days, when you went to see the Warriors, it was Warriors-Knicks in the second game and the Pistons and the Syracuse Nats in the first game, or something like that.
"But never the Palestra. I think I was in about fifth or sixth grade. A buddy of mine's father got tickets - tripleheader, NCAA Tournament. It's funny what you remember. I have strong recollections of seeing [Villanova's] Wali Jones that day. I can't remember whether or not if I saw Jerry West."
Dunphy thought it was in 1960, but the tripleheader was in 1962. West Virginia did play Villanova, but Jerry West had graduated - the Mountaineers' best player in the loss that day was Rod Thorn, who now runs the New Jersey Nets. And, yes, Wali (then Wally) Jones dropped 27.
The first game was NYU over UMass. Villanova over West Virginia was the second game. The third game went to overtime, with Wake Forest outlasting Yale. Billy Packer had 15 for the Demon Deacons. It obviously was a lifetime ago.
But it's a funny thing about lives and lifetimes. Some are measured in marriage and children, some in awards and honors, some merely in years and decades. The life of Fran Dunphy can be measured in all of those ways, but it can be measured at the Palestra, too. And as he said, laughing, "There are worse things."
Last night, Dunphy returned to the Palestra as Temple's basketball coach after having spent 17 years as Penn's coach. The story lines were obvious. He returned to a different bench, a different locker room, a different reality. After replacing John Chaney as Temple's coach, this was the last official act of Dunphy's baptism. He really is an Owl now.
It was a night when Temple held a 19-point lead in the first half and lost by a deuce, 76-74. It was a night when the building was hot and the noise was ridiculous and, like so many nights here, the storybook was slammed shut in the end, this time on three free throws by Penn's Mark Zoller with 1.4 seconds remaining.
The emotions and the events were as conflicted and as complicated as the world of Philadelphia basketball, a world where every yarn is tangled. And when it was over, even in disappointment, Dunphy could sit there and say, "It felt great, absolutely great." And everyone understood.
It wasn't a sellout (6,103), but, yes, Dunphy received two standing ovations from the crowd, once upon entering the court and another when he was introduced. One rollout from the Penn students thanked him, the next called him a traitor. Back and forth it all went.
It has been like this forever. This might be the first time, though, when Dunphy was so precisely in the middle of it all - amazing when you think about all of the years and decades.
"I didn't play in the Palestra in high school," Dunphy said. "The first time I played in the Palestra was probably with the La Salle freshman team, playing against the Penn freshman team. And I'm pretty sure my first varsity game was against Rider. I can remember getting in, and I promptly turned it over, and Jim Harding promptly took me out of the game.
"I can still remember it as such a big deal. I can still remember coming out of the locker room, especially for Big 5 games. The doubleheaders, the feeling was just extraordinary. And the way I remember it, there was always that same number of people in the stands. What was it?"
Four digits, so many memories: 9,208.
"That's what I remember, 9,208, whether it was a Big 5 game or Eastern Kentucky," Dunphy said. "I know it probably wasn't, but that's what I remember. And say there was the 7 o'clock game, and you were in the 9 o'clock game, and watching that and then coming out of the locker room - I'll never forget the experience."
Nor is he likely to forget this latest one. Dunphy embodies the Big 5 in many ways - his roles over the years as varied as the years themselves, as a player and a coach at three of the schools, as a sometimes peacemaker among ancient rivals and as an all-the-time booster of the unique civic concept of five-as-one.
This night, old friends were conflicted. This night, Dunphy himself called it exactly right. The afternoon before, he had said, "It'll be interesting to see how everything unfolds . . . It'll be different. But once the game starts, it'll be the same."
And so it was. And so another chapter was written. Dunphy lives this and he loves it. He looks back and he says, simply: "It's been fantastic. I'm 58 years old and I've coached most of my life. Whoever would have thought that a life could be so good? Great people, great kids, great relationships - who could have asked for more? It's been so good, it's ridiculous . . .
"I've been searching for somebody the last 6 months who is as lucky as me."
The search will continue, amid all of the tangled yarns. In the meantime, Fran Dunphy and the rest of us will return to the Palestra again and again, to a place where it is always the same and it is never the same, always and never. *
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